- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

Back in the 1950s, Desi Arnaz and Caesar Romero were pretty much it as far as Latino stars were concerned. Now, screens big and small are filled with the likes of Michael Pena, Wilmer Valderrama, Jimmy Smits and Esai Morales, all of whom celebrated their community’s advancement in the entertainment industry Wednesday night at the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts annual Noche de Gala.

“We have come a long way, but we still have a lot of work to do,” said Mr. Smits, who shared the spotlight at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel with established as well as “la nueva ola” (new wave) personalities.

Yes, it was a Hollywood-on-the-Potomac red carpet event with requisite glamour, low-cut gowns, perfect skin and a musical performance by barely-dressed Colombian singer Fanny Lu, who charged the crowd with a Shakira-like performance and mile-long legs to die for.

The evening’s political charge came courtesy of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who helped the group get started 10 years ago. Mrs. Clinton said what had started as a dream has become a force in the entertainment business.

“It’s pretty remarkable what progress that has been made,” she said to the cheering 400 black-tie guests, who helped raise about $400,000 for NHFA scholarships.

But, she added, “I will not be satisfied until we have true representation.”

While Hispanic Americans constitute about 14 percent of the population, their share of leading roles is a mere 3 to 5 percent, said Felix Sanchez, the group’s chairman and co-founder. The goal, he said, is not only to increase this share, but also to make sure the roles are more complex to “better identify” Hispanics “in the American consciousness.”

Wilmer Valderrama, who achieved fame as “Fez” in “That ‘70s Show,” said he recently took on a gritty role as an undocumented worker from Mexico in the 2006 movie “Fast Food Nation.”

“I’m very excited about being able to give a voice and a face to people who normally don’t get the attention they deserve,” the 26-year old actor said.

Mr. Valderrama, Mr. Pena and John Singleton, who has produced films about Hispanic American culture, including “Illegal Tender,” all took home NHFA awards.

Others from the vanguard (Jacqueline Pinol, Kate del Castillo, Yvonne DeLaRosa, Kurt Caceres and Paulo Benedeti) were spotted among local guests who included Jim Kimsey, Esther Coopersmith and Cuban-born Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, who noted that Hispanics now can boast of having more than 5,000 officeholders in the U.S., from Cabinet and Congress down to the local level.

Hispanics have risen so far, so fast that it’s only a matter of time “before McDonald’s starts serving platanos fritos,” he joked to the crowd.

“It’s so important to see yourself represented, whether it’s in politics or entertainment,” said Rep. Loretta Sanchez. Often, she acknowledged, actors have better mainstream reach than politicians.

“People don’t always know that I’m touching their lives,” the California Democrat said. “But when they see Jimmy Smits, they know.”

Gabriella Boston

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